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  • Writer's pictureAaron Ferguson

Region brand stamped on Drake's statement win over Loyola

Drake's Roman Penn, left, and Tremell Murphy celebrate a 51-50 overtime win over Loyola on Sunday. The win is a big boost to Drake's resume for a possible at-large NCAA Tournament bid. (AP photo)

Tremell Murphy will be remembered for hitting a circus 3-pointer, and Roman Penn for how he took over late in as important a win Drake has had in years.

The importance of the 51-50 overtime win for Drake over Loyola allows it to stay in the at-large conversation for the NCAA Tournament with a Quad 1 win over the No. 22 Ramblers on Sunday. That’s if the Bulldogs don’t win the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament in St. Louis in three weeks. If both were to get in on Selection Sunday, it would be the first time the league had two teams dance since 2016, when Northern Iowa (champion) and Wichita State (at-large) made it.

For Northwest Indiana, it showcased what Region basketball is about in front of a national audience on ESPN2 and hopefully tips the recruiting scales for current and future NWI hoopers.

“That area a lot of times there are just really good players,” Drake coach Darian DeVries told The Times last week. “I love how all those guys play. They understand the game, they play hard and are extremely competitive. I think that’s a great fit for anybody, and especially us. I like what they bring on a day in and day out basis.”

On Sunday, DeVries used three words to describe his team: tough, competitive and gritty. The five players from Northwest Indiana — Murphy (Griffith), Penn (Bishop Noll/Calumet City), D.J. Wilkins (Merrillville), ShanQuan Hemphill (Michigan City/Gary) and Jonah Jackson (Merrillville) — have stamped the Region brand of basketball on this Drake team.

The Bulldogs trailed by 10 with 7:44 left in regulation when they decided not to fold, like they did squandering a three-point halftime lead and losing by 27 to Loyola on Saturday. As one of the team leaders, Penn said he wasn’t happy with how he gave up on Saturday.

DeVries instilled confidence in his point guard: “I’ll ride with him through thick and thin. Even though he was struggling today we still put the ball in his hands late in the game because I believe in him so much and he’s got that ability to struggle the whole game, but when you need him the most he can still show up and make a big play late in the game when you need him to.”

Penn stepped up. He hit an acrobatic layup, which was regulation’s final score, over Loyola’s Cameron Krutwig. In overtime, he scored the period’s first points and then threaded a pass to Darnell Brodie, who slipped a high ball screen, for what proved to be the decisive score with 2:02 left. Prior to that possession, he tied Krutwig up as the imposing Ramblers center tried to secure an offensive rebound.

“Roman is a super good player, one of the best point guards I’ve ever played with,” Murphy said. “I know he’s capable of doing it. He did it tonight and it was nothing new.”

Murphy scored a game-high 17 points on 6-of-9 shooting. Perhaps none were bigger than his desperation 3-pointer with 2:52 left in regulation to pull Drake within 44-43. Murphy took an errant pass from Brodie on the right block, Murphy’s body floating to the left corner, extending his left arm for a one-handed catch to save possession, gather and beat the shot clock.

“We put that play in this morning,” DeVries joked. “It was luck, just luck. A huge shot because we needed it. ... You need a break or two every now and then, and that was certainly a very fortunate one for us.”

It’s an important footnote as Drake tries on Cinderella’s glass slipper for size. The Bulldogs eye the NCAA Tournament, though they say they are taking it one game at a time. They have the veteran-led chemistry of those teams that pull off the upsets that make March Madness so great.

They’ve also won all seven games decided by 10 points or less, including at Kansas State, two in overtime and overcoming a late deficit at Valparaiso on Feb. 6.

Jackson, who didn’t play Sunday after 13 minutes Saturday, has been crucial for the team’s chemistry. DeVries previously called him “one of the best teammates I’ve ever coached.”

Whether he plays or not, he’s the team’s biggest cheerleader on the bench and a familiar face for camera operators looking for a cutaway.

When Drake is in a tight game, or has its backs against the wall while trailing, the message Jackson and Wilkins recall from T.J. Lux — their high school coach — resonates with Drake.

“Mental toughness and adversity,” Jackson told The Times last week. “We can’t control whether the ball goes in or how good we’re playing but we can always control our attitude, our mind and how hard we’re playing. Those are the three things you really can always control. You can always see us with great attitudes and playing hard. Everybody is cheering and having a good time.”

Lessons learned in the Region are playing out on the court while Northwest Indiana gets referenced on broadcasts and social media. The competitiveness, grit and toughness Region rats carry to work, and the selfless attitudes are creating a memorable season at Drake.

“We’re playing for more than us,” Penn said. “We’re playing for the city of Des Moines, the school, the people in the Region that root for us. The amount of support (the Region) gives for us is crazy. We just got to play harder each game and hopefully we can make people proud.”

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